Sleep and Heart Disease

Sleep plays a crucial role in heart health. It may come as no surprise that the body needs sleep to repair itself and stay healthy. Individuals who do not get enough quality sleep are at higher risk for a range of health conditions including issues that negatively affect the heart and cardiovascular system.

Unfortunately, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Heart disease describes any condition that affects the heart and how it works. Heart disease is one type of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is a group of health conditions related to the heart and blood vessels including stroke.

If you are living with heart disease or concerned about your cardiovascular health, learning about the connection between heart disease and sleep can help you focus on heart-healthy living, including getting good sleep.

How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Heart Health?

Lack of sleep and heart health are closely related.

Experts recommend that adults over the age of 18 get seven to nine hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. However, up to a third of Americans sleep less than seven hours each night.

Individuals who regularly sleep fewer than seven hours a night are more likely to experience health problems, including complications with heart health.

High Blood Pressure

One of the greatest risk factors for heart disease is high blood pressure, which is sometimes referred to as hypertension. Research suggests that high blood pressure can develop in short sleepers or people with disrupted sleep.

In healthy sleepers, blood pressure normally drops 10% to 20% during NREM sleep. This phenomenon is known as nocturnal dipping. The amount of nocturnal dipping predicts cardiovascular risk. People with little or no drop in blood pressure during nighttime sleep are at great risk for cardiovascular health issues including heart failure.

Weight Gain

Short sleep is associated with obesity, which increases the risk of heart disease. Experts do not fully understand why insufficient sleep is related to weight gain, but research suggests several factors may play a role.

Studies show that people who do not get enough sleep engage in less physical activity. Other research suggests that not getting enough sleep may influence the hormones that control appetite and trigger the part of the brain that controls hunger and cravings for fatty foods.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease. Type 2 diabetes, a condition that causes high levels of sugar in the blood, is associated with too little or too much sleep. Difficulty falling or staying asleep is also tied to type 2 diabetes.

Experts are unsure how and why sleep patterns are linked to diabetes, though researchers have suggested several different explanations.

One theory is that sleep loss leads to hormonal changes that contribute to diabetes risk. Another is that sleep patterns may be directly related to blood sugar control. As a result, getting consistent, high quality sleep may help people living with type 2 diabetes keep their blood sugar in check.

Inflammation

Experts believe chronic inflammation may be a factor that links insufficient sleep with cardiovascular health problems.

Inflammation is an immune system response that aims to defend the body against injury or foreign substances. Some inflammation is normal and occurs without noticeable symptoms. However, if inflammation persists for a long time or begins to affect healthy tissue, it can become a chronic health issue. Heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases are associated with chronic inflammation.

Even small amounts of sleep deprivation can lead to increased inflammation in the body. Studies show that blood markers associated with inflammation, such as C-reactive protein, increase after a person loses only two hours of sleep.

Heart Attack

Heart attacks, also referred to as myocardial infarctions, occur when blood flow to the heart becomes blocked. Health conditions associated with insufficient sleep such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity increase the risk of heart attack.

Stroke

Stroke, like heart disease, is a type of cardiovascular disease. A stroke occurs when there isn’t enough blood flow to the brain or when there is bleeding in the brain. Many of the risk factors for stroke are associated with a lack of sleep, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and obesity.

Sleep Disorders and Heart Health

Research shows an association between heart disease and some sleep disorders including sleep apnea, insomnia, and sleep-related movement disorders.

Sleep Apnea

There is a well-established relationship between sleep apnea and heart health. Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes people to stop breathing for brief periods while they sleep. Poor sleep quality and unrefreshing sleep are common amongst people with sleep apnea.

Experts suggest that between 50% and 70% of people with heart failure have either obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) or central sleep apnea (CSA).

OSA, the most common type of sleep apnea, occurs when the windpipe collapses, blocking the airway. OSA can increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure are common among people living with OSA, all of which increase the risk for cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke.

CSA is a condition in which the brain’s signals to breathe are disrupted during sleep, leading to pauses in breathing. CSA frequently occurs in people with heart failure and following a stroke.

Insomnia

Some heart health conditions can occur in people with chronic insomnia. People with insomnia have difficulty getting quality sleep, falling asleep, and staying asleep throughout the night.

Research shows a connection between insomnia and both high blood pressure and heart disease. Furthermore, people with insomnia are prone to lifestyle choices that increase the risk of heart health issues. They may get less exercise, make poor dietary decisions, and experience increased stress.

Diabetes, which can raise the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions, occurs in as many as 50% of people with insomnia.

Roughly 30% of people with heart failure have difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Beta blockers, drugs commonly used to help manage cardiovascular health issues, may cause insomnia in some people.

Restless Legs Syndrome and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

Research suggests an association between sleep-related movement disorders–such as restless legs syndrome (RLS) and periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD)–and cardiovascular health issues, though more research is needed.

According to experts, elevated blood pressure is common among people with RLS and PLMD, which may explain the relationship between cardiovascular health issues and these sleep disorders.

Sleep Tips for People with Heart Disease

Sleep and heart health are undeniably linked. Whether you have heart disease or want to prevent it, getting better rest is critical. Some research suggests that getting even one more hour of sleep a night can have a positive impact on the heart.

Practicing good sleep hygiene may help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Sleep hygiene is a term used to describe healthy sleep habits. 

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Train yourself to fall asleep and wake up easily by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Avoid staying up late or sleeping in on weekends.
  • Get regular exercise: Exercise is good for your heart, but it can also help you fall asleep at night. Not only does aerobic exercise lower blood pressure, it may be a helpful way for some people to fight insomnia.
  • Create an environment that encourages sleep: Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and free of distractions. Adjust the temperature and bedding so that you are not too hot or too cold.
  • Do not use electronics before bedtime: Devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones may make it harder to fall asleep because they emit blue light. Blue light interferes with the release of melatonin, a hormone necessary for sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine late in the day: While caffeine is well-known for keeping people alert and awake, it also raises blood pressure.
  • Relax and meditate: Stress is a risk factor for conditions like coronary artery disease and high blood pressure. It can also lead to insomnia. Try reducing your stress level with breathing exercises, meditation, or other relaxation techniques.

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